The oil stove on my desk has been burning for a while and finally tiny bubbles are beginning to form. A bigger stove would heat the water quicker, but it can’t be any bigger. It has to be small and easily carried. Otherwise, there is no point in having it.
A rap at the door frame attracts my attention. “Captain?” I glance at the man standing there. Tall, slim, athletic, even handsome perhaps, if you like that kind of thing, but above all else, an invaluable asset.
“Come in Sergeant Wynter. What is it?” I don’t really need to ask. I know exactly what it is. We have been through this routine so often. Three patrols here already and on countless occasions before. Nevertheless, I like to stick to the ritual, to the routine.
A lack of routine can prove fatal.
He takes a step inside my doorless office. “Everything is ready for us to leave.”
I point my chin at the stove. “Not quite everything.” The first faint wisps are beginning to rise from the surface, but my breath is still making bigger clouds. What happened to spring? My hands push deeper into the pockets of my heavy riding coat. “These need to be properly cooked first.”
“It would boil a lot quicker if you started with warm water from the cooking fire instead of melting a pot full of solid ice over that tiny flame.”
I shake my head. “It has to be like it has to be.” If only the weather understood this.
“I know, I know. And always was as it ever shall be.” He sighs.
Tiny silvery spheres are beginning to swell at the bottom of the pan. The first bubble rolls up the flattened face of one of the submerged glass bulbs. Then, at the rounded edge, it pauses for a moment before breaking free and rising straight to the surface. It pops. The Sergeant is still standing there. I glance at him. “Problem?”
“It’s cold outside.”
It is never cosy warm at this altitude. “And in here too.”
“Yes, but the men are exposed to more wind.”
Despite the heavy leather riding boots, a persistent draft has chilled my feet to stone, but he is probably right. “Snow?” Back in the homelands spring’s bright riot is probably already giving way to the dignity of summer.
“A dusting, yes.”
One more patrol and then we shall be headed back. “You do realise that a lot worse is likely waiting for us down there?”
“Sure. The men are still freezing their nuts off though. It’s never a good tactic to start out with everyone already in a bad mood.”
Now it’s my turn to sigh. The pot gives a subtle sympathetic hiss. Though far away, I can see my mother bustling around her stove. Her face is turned away, but I know she is happy I have returned. “Fine. I’m sure Noss has something boiling on the kitchen fire. Get her to hand out cups to them but keep them mounted. This shouldn’t take too long now.”
“Captain.” He leaves. Again, I am alone with just the dim blue flame and its attendant shadows for company. I wonder what she will cook when I get back.
The two bulbs begin to skip and jitter as the water comes to the boil. I pick up my tongs and fish one of them out. Holding it at an angle, the delicate cogs and dials imprisoned within glint in the flame light. I turn it over, inspecting the various needles and pointers through the front and back faces. Some are already moving smoothly backwards across their dials. One skips and quivers erratically, but the most important one for now has hardly moved. The spirit inside still has a long way to go to full charge. I lower the Metronism gently into the water and check its twin. Same story.
I check them twice more before I am satisfied.
Once fully charged, I place them in a wooden carrying case. The soft velvet pockets sunk into the padding grip the circumferences of the bulbs perfectly. I snap the lid shut and secure the latch. Even in the blue light of the stove, the knots and whorls glow a rich red. My thumbs rub across the surface, revelling in the beautiful texture. Before slipping it under my breast plate, into its pocket next to my heart, I hold it to my lips and kiss the top edge. “Keep me safe, Papa.” Obviously, he can’t. Only I can do that, but it would have pleased him to know that I have developed the ritual of this little prayer. Routine keeps you safest of all.
Outside in the yard of Watch Post twelve, soldiers and horses cower under their snow-bleached cloaks and blankets. Bent together against the weather, Senior Reserve Noss and Sergeant Wynter are having a final conference. I walk over. “Sergeant, Senior, anything I need to know before setting off?”
Both greet me. “Captain!” Wynter continues, shouting to be heard above the wind. “We were just discussing the situation with the firewood. The Senior is concerned that if this weather continues for much longer, our stores are not going to last until the relief turns up.”
“What about scavenging more from around the guard post?”
Noss shrugs. “There wasn’t much to be found around the place to begin with.” She looks at the gatehouse. “With only a few exceptions, we’ve scavenged everything there is already.” She bares her few remaining yellowing teeth in a grimace. “Why nobody has reported the terrible state of the place, I can’t imagine.”
I follow her gaze. Even the heavy wooden gates are in disrepair. They should be part of our solid line of defence. We’ve had to prop one permanently closed after the hinges failed. The other is swung open ready for our departure. Once we’ve passed through, three men with levers are going to inch it slowly shut again before nailing boards across it to keep it that way. We had better not need it opened quickly on our return. I look back at Noss. “The gates stay in place. What about tree wood?”
She rocks her head. “Obviously, green wood is going to smoke awful. Better than nothing though, I’m sure.” Her shrewd brown eyes squint down the valley into the gloom of the storm. Her nose wrinkles. “Tree line’s the problem. It’ll be a slow process to fell and haul very much all the way up the valley, especially when it’s so steep. We’ll be stretched pretty thin on the wall.”
“What do you suggest?”
She nods in the other direction. “The trees grow much closer on the other side, within sight really and the track is flatter too.”
I shake my head. “Absolute no go. No one crosses the border whilst we are gone.” I tilt my head down the valley. “Single team, two men, just branches, no trees. Make it work.”
They both shake their heads. “No.”
I look at my Sergeant. “Is the mission plan clear to the men?”
“Is the column arranged as we agreed?”
“And all the tackle has been checked thoroughly?”
“And all the weapons are in regulation order?”
“The horses are all fit?”
“Has everyone received their patrol rations?”
“And everyone has filled both their water skins?”
“And their canteens?”
“And everyone is keen to do this?”
“And have I covered everything?”
He smiles. “Yes.”
I smack my gloved hands together. “Good, so let’s fucking well get on with it then!” Everything is in order. As I walk the line to my horse at the head of the column, I know it is. Everything is always in order. I still stop to check bridles and interrogate the men at random. Nobody grumbles. They know it is all part of my routine and routine is a good thing.
Taking the small bundle tucked under my arm, I stuff it into my right-hand saddle bag. The waiting reserve hands me the reins and I swing into the saddle. Turning, I look back down the line. Everyone else has put an extra cloak on over their coats. Should I do the same? There is enough room under my armour for an extra thick woollen shirt. I’m warm enough and a cloak might hamper manoeuvrability. I’m good.
From the rear of the line Sergeant Wynter waves the final all clear to move out. Facing forward, I give a long blast on my whistle and point ahead. As the vanguard slips through the gateway ahead of me in single file, the three men with levers salute. I like that. It should become part of the ritual too, even if the doors work properly in future.
We enter hostile territory.
On the other side of the gate, the wind picks up. Without the shelter of the guard wall, it blasts the snow directly into our faces. A hood would have helped keep the ice crystals out of my eyes. It would have also limited my field of view. Turning my coat collar up and tilting the peak of my helmet down keeps the worst from my face, and nothing can sneak up on me from the side either.
More than the cold, the thought of what vile creatures might possibly be afoot in such terrible weather turns my hair to bristles.
I check back down the line. Squinting, I briefly make out the tall silhouette of Sergeant Wynter against the warm light from the guard fire in the yard. Everyone is through. Then, the door creeps shut leaving only the black and grey of the storm. We are truly back on patrol in the Borderlands now. I shudder. It is good that the wind is carrying the sound of the hammering away from us.
After reforming two abreast, we carry on down the track again. At first, only the occasional stunted tree, bent and twisted by exposure, marks our progress. With trunks warped and branches ice encrusted, they appear suddenly from the darkness. Like scarecrows, they shake and quiver as we pass. I wonder what these hideous sentinels might be trying to scare off — us or the Spawn?
Beyond the first switchback, conditions improve a little. The trees grow taller and denser, cutting down the wind. It is starting to get lighter too. Not the light of dawn, of course. We are surely too far from the border for that now. In the shadow of the Realm of Chaos, there can be no night and day, no dusk and dawn, no brightness and shadow. Instead a little of the light of creation just manages to seep in, perpetually illuminating the Borderlands in an even diffused grey. This is the kraulikt.
It is in this half-light that we have come to hunt. My patrol is one of many deployed along the border. As one, we are the Aether Guard and it is our purpose to hold back the encroachment of Chaos. The Realm oozes its vile progeny into the Borderlands. Grotesque creatures that, if left unchecked, would spread disorder across the Homelands and the other countries of the Rationalle. For aeons we have fought to hold them back. Wild, mindless and untameable the Spawn cannot be reasoned with. It can only be killed. It is for this gruesome task that we have come.
We trek on as the jagged ice crystals gradually give way to fat flakes, drifting down to carpet any surface flat enough. It is getting warmer now too. Not wanting the settled snow to melt and soak me through, I begin brushing it from my coat and breaches. The dislodged wads drift like gossamer to the ground. By the third turn in the track, the leading horses are kicking through deep drifts, stirring up the snow to land on us again as we pass. I fold down my collar and open the top buttons on my coat. How can there be so much snow and still be so warm?
I take off my gloves and wipe the snow away with a bare hand. The flakes feel gritty. A few stick to my skin. Something is wrong as I watch them melt. They don’t feel cold. My skin stings from the heat. Steam is rising from the damp cuff of my coat. My mind cartwheels. I reach out to test the mane of my horse. The hair snaps and crumbles beneath my fingers. I reach further. His right ear is frozen hard, but not with frostbite, it feels more like… stone!
The realisation comes to me as a tsunami of clarity. “GEESFLOGGEN! COVER UP! EVERYTHING, NOW!” There is no chance for orderly instructions. I look back down the line. The guards gawp at me in shock. “HORSES TOO!”
We have to cover up all exposed flesh. We mustn’t let the snow settle on us, let alone melt on our skin. Twisting in the saddle, I drag my cloak from my pack and throw it over my horse’s neck and head. I hope I am not too rough and snap his poor ear. I check the withers. His blanket and my packs cover most of his rear. His tail sticks out but can always regrow. Grabbing a large kerchief, I wrap it round my head to completely cover my face. Though the silk makes everything hazy, it is just thin enough to see through. I cannot afford to leave even a slit for my eyes. Struggling back into my gloves, I squint out, trying to judge if everyone has followed my command and example.
“Everything covered?” My question draws a handful of shouts. Most are positive. It’ll have to do. What now? We cannot afford to stand here any longer, otherwise we’ll be turned to rock where we stand. I pray that it hasn’t started happening to our horses’ legs already. We could turn, but heading back up the hill will take too long, especially if the wind has drifted the geesfloggen deeply on the track. We’ll be statues before we ever reach the watch post. I think of the stunted trees and my skin creeps.
We need to head down, get below the snow line so that the flakes melt high overhead before ever reaching the ground. “Follow me! Single file. Keep to my tracks!” My heels dig deep and we launch down the path. We need speed. Not only will we get to safety sooner, but at full gallop the horses take bigger strides. The less often their poor hooves touch the geesfloggen the better. The scarf helps to keep some of the wind from my eyes, but things are still flashing past in a silken blur. I hope that I can make out the track clearly enough, that I don’t miss a turn and barrel us all off a cliff.
The sound of our charge is beginning to change. On the powdery flakes the hooves are muffled and dull. Now our stampede occasionally drums and echoes back from the hillsides as the ground briefly hardens. The snow is beginning to melt in patches. As we ride through them, I can feel how the horses’ hooves squirm for purchase whenever they hit slushy patches or the wet stones beneath pooling water. My horse must be tiring but he manages to stay upright despite galloping blind over such variable terrain. If he turns a hoof, we are all done for.
Beneath my scarf the hot damp is unbearable. On the outside, the flakes are forming a damp grey mush, clogging the fine pores of the textile, seeping through as steaming water. It is becoming a struggle to draw air. Knocking the slush away, I take a deep breath. My lips burn as the damp silk is sucked against my face. Droplets of scalding water coat my throat and lungs. I cough, feeling how my phlegm comes up like egg shells. I spit out the grains of mucous, but the scarf catches them so that they trickle down to scratch against my collar.
My eyes are watering from the relentless coughing. Combined with the ever opaquer scarf, following the track has become pure guesswork. Fresh air washes over the corner of my face as I pull back a fold of the scarf and hazard an unprotected glance beyond. Blinking hard, the wind carries away the stinging teardrop and I get a heart’s beat of clear vision. The geesfloggen has turned to sleet. It still scalds where it strikes my cheek but its power to turn us to stone is ebbing. Soon it will just be water again. I pull back the scarf a little more and take a cautious lungful of air before clearing the remains of the sand from my throat.
Freeing my face completely, I squint forward into the sleet. Though I must blink continuously, the kraulikt is stronger now, probably as bright as it is ever going to get. The pale grey slushy streak of the track is easy to follow as it winds between the dark damp of the fir trees. I look back at my guards, trying to gauge if everyone is keeping up. Stretched past the last bend, it is impossible to tell. I shrug and look forward again. It is almost too late.
Ahead, melt water has cut a deep gulley through the loose earth of the track. With my horse still running blind beneath my cloak, we might have run straight into it, crippling the horse and throwing me Ancients know how far into the trees. We can’t afford to slow and it is too close to stop now anyway. At the last moment, I haul my mount into the air and he leaps the gurgling stream. As we land on the far side, I cannot check if the others have made the jump. Another stream is directly before us.
(By the book to learn what happens next...)